Being a hot commodity in the literary world means spending considerable time on the road selling your latest book with talk show spots, virtual forums and book signings. Sherman Alexie would know. The 33-year-old Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian poet, novelist, and short story writer has a new collection of stories called The Toughest Indian in the World, due out this month.
But Alexie would also know that, as an Indian writer, notoriety means accepting the mantle of cultural spokesman. His winter review of Ian Frazier’s book, On the Rez, called Frazier out on the carpet for being an “outsider eager to portray himself as an insider.” In an interview last week, Frazier, a former staff writer at The New Yorker, responded by asserting that writers should challenge themselves by writing what they are unfamiliar with. Now, Alexie speaks his piece to us. We were fortunate to catch up with Sherman Alexie last week via cell phone as he sat in his rental car in a parking lot in L.A, to talk about Indian heroes, Missoula, a supermodel, and Ian Frazier.
In your book you seem to be seeking definitions; one character is seeking the toughest Indian in the world, and in the story “A Good Man,” you have Dr. Richard Crowell, a university professor of Native American Studies, former AIM member, and pseudo-Indian asking ‘What is an Indian?’ How would you define an Indian today?
...What is an Indian? It is a combination of self-definition and tribal definition, but I guess an Indian is someone whom their tribe says is an Indian.
Well, in the context of the story, it seems that the guy who was teaching his son to ride his bike instead of participating in Wounded Knee II was more your model of what an Indian should be.
Yeah, it ends up being more domestic than political, and more emotional than bureaucratic, and it is about being a good member of a tribe. I think most Indian identity today is about self-identification rather than being about tribal responsibility. What is an Indian? Someone who is responsible to their tribe, their family.
It seems as though the Indian identity that a lot of people want to use is one of the various romantic stereotypes, but teaching a kid to ride a bike is not one of them—
Exactly, exactly. It’s not anywhere in the definition. So I put it in there. For me, when I think about a lot of these Indian leaders in the AIM movement and such, and I’m not going to name any names, but a lot of them have literally a half dozen kids scattered all over the country. So my disillusionment with these so-called leaders really had a lot to do with this part of the story.
You know my father was never that kind of person, he was never politically active, he was never famous, he never stood on a soapbox. He never did anything memorable other than the fact that he stayed with the family—he was constant to the family. There is something hugely heroic, much more tribal and much more Indian in this than any number of historical activists…
Kind of a domestic hero? Yeah, that’s an Indian to me.
One story of particular interest to us in Missoula, is “Indian Country,” which was first published in The New Yorker (March 13, 2000), in which your hero, Low Man Smith, arrives at the Missoula airport and immediately has his heart broken. Why did you choose Missoula as a setting?
[Pause.] It’s faintly autobiographical.
Really. Faintly, very faintly. I didn’t come to Missoula for a woman. I came for this conference and things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to … and I ended up at a dinner like the one in the story. And Missoula is just a fascinating town to me. You know, the The New Yorker version contained a sentence that was edited out of the book version that was one of my favorite lines. “Missoula was a town full of ranchers and mid-list literary novelists.” So cowboy boots and typewriters, that is what Missoula is about. I guess the literary thing on the plains has always been fascinating to me, and I have a lot of friends who live there but I don’t know why [Laughs.]. You know, why did Missoula become this place?
Good question. Maybe it’s the water.
Yeah. And although I don’t really address it in the story per se, I was getting after that sort of idea of Missoula being this kind of anomalous place where strange and magical things can happen. And so this life-changing episode for this man happens in Missoula. It ended up being sort of Oz.
Does this story owe any debt to Dorothy Johnson, the University of Montana professor and writer, since your title “Indian Country” is the same as the title of her book of short stories?
[Pause.] Oh no. The thing is, at one point all the titles of these stories were Cole Porter songs, and then I decided that that was just too precious and so literally I just changed them at the last minute; they were all sort of off the top of my head. [Laughs.] …The name Low Man comes from Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman. It came from a moment when I was on a plane and I was going to talk at a university and I looked around me and everybody had their laptops out and as I listened to the conversations around me it seemed like everybody in the plane was some kind of salesman except for me. And I thought: ’Well at least I’m not like them.’ And then about two minutes later I thought: ‘Yes I am, I’m on the road selling my book, selling my art. I’m a traveling salesman. I’m sitting there ranting and raving inside my head and until I said it aloud I didn’t even realize it. I said ‘I’m fucking Willie Loman! I’m Willie fucking Loman!’ ….
[Interrupting] Look! Tyra Banks just got out of the car in front of me!
Yeah she looks like she weighs about two pounds, [Yells:] Go eat a sandwich! … Hold on one second. [Speaking to someone else.] It’s a rental. Beat the hell out of it. Yeah, it’s a rental. [Speaking to the interviewer.] Some guy just bumped my car. All this adventure is happening; first Tyra Banks and then I get rear-ended.
When we interviewed Ian Frazier last week, he said that the writer is not obliged to write only what he knows, and in fact only accomplishes something of note when he challenges himself and goes beyond his experience, often looking foolish in the process as he did on Pine Ridge.
Yeah, it’s the easiest thing in the world for a white guy who has had the privilege of being published in The New Yorker for most of his life to say that. He has never had to worry about anyone coming in to tell his stories. Nobody has rushed into Ian Frazier’s life to write about him.
It also vaguely reeks of that art for art’s sake ethos which we all know is amorphous, ephemeral crap. We live in the real world and art has serious political and economic ramifications, and the fact remains that Ian Frazier was in an incredibly privileged position in writing this book. … I’m glad that I had a chance to review this book. I’m glad that I have the kind of cultural power to where I am a formidable foe, and in fact I am a much larger cultural figure than Ian Frazier. And for me [his review of On the Rez] was making sure that he was held accountable. That he has to talk about his right to even deal with this material. That even if he thinks it is perfectly within his rights that he gets questioned about it. So I guess I am glad to be holding him accountable, because I certainly am by Indians. The artist is accountable…
On the inherent problems of cross cultural writing.
… People will turn to the white voice first. I doubt [Frazier’s] book outsold me, but I know it outsold just about every other Indian writer. Is it because it is better? Is he a better writer than Scott Momaday, or Leslie Marmon Silko, or James Welch? No, not even close and Welch has this incredible new book coming out, and it had better get the kind of coverage that Frazier’s book did. And it is cute of him to play the Western writer, but he is part of the New York literary mafia; he is heavily ensconced in that world. You know he came out, wrote his book and ran away. …
There is a scene in “Indian Country” that is set in a 7-Eleven, and our Indy fact-checking team wanted to let you know that there are no 7-Elevens in Missoula. We suggest a change to something more local sounding, like Ole’s, or Holiday.
Oh yeah. I knew there were no 7-Eleven’s. The New Yorker fact checker picked up on that. It is one of my literary tropes, you know a kind of literary cookie that shows up in almost all of my works. I used to work at one in Seattle.